For the final six weeks of last season, it was a foregone conclusion that the three California teams in the Pacific Division were sure to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anaheim took first, Los Angeles second and the Sharks third, while the remaining four teams were well behind and essentially buried by the end of February.
The Sharks should be in a prime position to challenge for the division title, and may even be the frontrunners. Their main competition is still the Kings, who have significant depth issues that were exposed by San Jose in the first round last season and didn’t do anything to improve in the offseason while losing Milan Lucic; and Anaheim, which replaced coach Bruce Boudreau with Randy Carlyle, and is going with John Gibson as its starter in net.
NBC NHL analyst Brian Boucher is “not thrilled about L.A.,” but thinks the Ducks are primed to challenge for their fifth straight division title if Gibson can step up.
“Are [the Kings] fast enough? I don’t know. They look slow,” Boucher said. “Losing a guy like Lucic I think will benefit them in the long run, but they didn’t really replace him with much of anything. I think the Sharks are a better team than the Kings right now.
“The Ducks I feel can be the best of all those California teams just because of their defense, but I have questions about their goaltending. I don’t know if John Gibson is as good as everybody makes him out to be. Now the pressure is on him to be the guy, and we’ll see if he can carry the load.”
While the Sharks probably have fewer question marks than their two California rivals, they’re going to have to figure that at least one or two of the other Pacific teams will be greatly improved. Edmonton, with Connor McDavid and a few new faces, should be better than last season. Calgary features a solid blue line and some young talent up front with guys like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and addressed their goaltending problem with Brian Elliott, formerly of St. Louis.
Even the Coyotes could be tougher if last year’s rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, in particular, continue to improve. Only the Canucks look hopeless.
NBC’s Keith Jones expects the division to be tighter.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see Calgary get their game back to where it was a couple seasons ago,” Jones said. “I think Calgary is a bit of a threat. I like their blue line and now they’ve got a goaltender in Elliott. They’ll be difficult.
“I think Edmonton still isn’t there as far as the back end goes, but they’ve got one of the rising superstars in the game. I think we’re all going to be shocked at just how great [McDavid] is by the end of this season – I’m talking one of the best two or three players in the game.”
Former NHL goalie and an analyst for the NHL Network, TSN and RDS, Martin Biron also sees some of the lesser teams from last season rising.
“The California teams are competitive and are going to remain competitive, but there are other teams that are going to start stealing points away from the top teams,” Biron said. “Vancouver is possibly the only one in that division that might be at the bottom.”
The Sharks are in the driver’s seat, according to Jones.
“I worry about some of the other teams like L.A. and Anaheim taking a step back, which I think will benefit San Jose,” Jones said. “I don’t think that they are as strong as they were in previous seasons. I think there’s a major window of opportunity for San Jose to build off of what they did last year.”